Do you know Mike Birbiglia? Fans of stand-up comedy should know him from his shows such as What I Should Have Said Was Nothing and Two Drink Mike. NPR listeners might recognize him from This American Life, where he contributes bits culled from his “Secret Public Journal” blog. And cinemaphiles ought to learn his name because Birbiglia is emerging as not only a top-notch writer and performer but he’s not half bad behind the camera, too. His first feature film, co-directed with Seth Barrish, also a first-timer, Sleepwalk with Me, has been a hit with audiences and critics at film festivals ever since Sundance back in January, and it’s now in theaters, cleaning up even amid otherwise dismal box office returns (we’re in for an indie renaissance not unlike what happened in the 1970’s, but that’s for later).
Based on Birbiglia’s own history as a stand-up and his struggle with a serious sleep disorder, REM Behavior Disorder, in which the sufferer doesn’t just sleep walk, but actually acts out her dreams, Sleepwalk with Me is the funniest movie you’re going to see this year. Like The Trip last year, it mines its best humor from the pain of a performer’s life, but where The Trip focused on the competition and drive, Sleepwalk hones in on the constant beating a performer’s self-esteem takes on the road to success. Birbiglia is a great narrator for his own story, which he literally does from the position of driving his car around. It should be annoying but it works because he’s so sweet and funny and really does not need to remind us that we’re “on his side”. Birbiglia’s humble, easy delivery is enough to cement the audience in his favor. Even as he confesses serious transgressions like cheating on his girlfriend, our worst reaction is to tut-tut, not scorn. His earnestness is one of his best assets as a comedian, and it’s what makes Sleepwalk with Me more than just a comedy about comedy.
Birbiglia plays a fictionalized version of himself, Matt Pandamiglio, who wants to be a comedian but is really just a bar tender at a comedy club. He lives with his long-time girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under), and has well-meaning but overbearing parents, Linda (Carol Kane, at her flighty best) and Gary (James Rebhorn, Homeland). It seems like everyone in Matt’s life is getting their act together in their mid-twenties—his little sister is getting married, his friends have a baby, his girlfriend loves her job. But Matt is floundering, struggling to cope with a dream that requires a huge personal sacrifice.
We follow Matt’s rise through the ranks, from the initial crippling self-doubt and rounds of failure to the time spent on the endless road, living out of cheap motels and a car. And then comes the first brush with success, as Matt finds his voice and begins getting laughs and building an audience with far-flung gigs. But with that success comes fear, because Matt’s material is all true (not as common as you think with stand-ups), and it’s mostly about his own waffling in his relationship: to marry, or not to marry.
This is where Sleepwalk with Me becomes something larger and more interesting than just Mike Birbiglia’s bildungsroman. Some of Birbiglia’s best material taps into the universal fear that marriage won’t be enough, that finding a life partner is not going to equate to total happiness, and the hesitation the arises when you love someone, but you’re just not sure it’s enough. This is the ground the movie mines, too, and Birbiglia not only translates his comedy bits to the screen without it feeling heavy-handed or hammy, but he deftly sends up his parents’ marriage and his own failings with gentle but never mean-spirited mockery.
There is a deep sense of affection for these characters even when they’re being pains in the ass. Birbiglia saves his harshest moments for himself, not hiding his own mistakes in this fantasy recreation of his life. You don’t have to know his stand-up or even like it to pull something worthwhile out of Sleepwalk with Me. Stand-up is merely the language Birbiglia uses to tell a very human, universal story.
Threaded throughout the movie is a sub-plot dealing with Birbiglia’s very real struggle with REM Behavior Disorder. He plays it down, recreating absurd dreams and inter-cutting them with scenes of his sleeping self acting them out in the real world, and it provides some of the funniest moments of the film. His friends and family laugh at his nighttime escapades even as they demand he see a doctor about what could be a serious problem. But with his career gaining some traction and demanding long stints on the road, Matt keeps pushing that appointment back until it’s too late—as his personal life implodes he sleep-runs through a second story hotel window. It’s a sobering moment, a realization that something is deeply wrong, but it’s played for effective laughs, graced with a solid cameo from 30 Rock’s John Lutz.
There are a lot of comedians in this movie—Marc Maron, Wyatt Cenac, Jessi Klein, Hannibal Buress, David Wain, Kristen Schaal, Amy Shumer, to name a few—but their appearances don’t detract from the story. The only moment that sort of broke me out of it was a touching, very casual reference to (the late, sorely missed) Mitch Hedberg. But if you don’t know who that is, the moment will pass with nary a thought. Sleepwalk with Me is accessible to a wider audience than just fans of Birbiglia and stand-up. It’s the funniest movie you’ll see this year, and easily one of the best. Sleepwalk with Me is expanding in theaters and is available On Demand. You have no excuse not to see it. You simply MUST.